An overlooked part of Irish history

The Troubles have produced a vast library but it is amazing that this is the first major history of an overlooked but influential movement: the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party. This history of the “Sticks” is a labour of love that took five years and draws on many interviews and official archives, so to speak.

It convincingly and readably narrates the fascinating story of a movement that journeyed over three bloody decades from the priority of forcibly removing the border and uniting Ireland to abandoning armed struggle and opposing terrorism but never decommissioning its arms.

They also moved from opposing “the Communist menace” to embracing class politics with a distinct Stalinist tinge – their bookshops held the Irish franchise for Soviet literature and the Soviet Communist Party granted WP members free health treatment in the USSR. The Irish security services believed the Sticks were “the greatest long-term danger to the security of the institutions of the State” in the early 1970s as opposed to the Provos who then favoured a free Ireland based on Christian principles. Irish establishment politicians worried about the Sticks’ organised infiltration of the trade unions, the student movement and a savvy media operation.

The authors, Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, academic and journalist respectively, write that the WP played “a large part in the death of irredentist ideology in the south” and “served as the training ground for much of the leadership of the present-day Labour Party and trade unions in the South. The revolution it struggled for, through violence and political activism, never took place; but the struggle shaped modern Ireland.”

The history is tainted by its military wing – the Official IRA (OIRA) which went from opposing the B Specials to what became known internally as Group B and whose nefarious “special activities” were justified by a “revolutionary morality.”

It is packed with anecdotes and vignettes which bring a sometimes bohemian cast of characters to life in all their camaraderie, passion and bitterness. It’s a rich and riveting resource.

I declare a personal interest. As a British political activist, I worked with WP and Democratic Left members in the 1980s and 1990s. From this, I can say that the book fails adequately to describe the WP’s influence on the British labour movement.

The Bennite upsurge in the early 1980s strengthened the Troops Out Movement which often forced an annual conference debate, aptly televised when Playtime replaced live broadcasting. In 1985, the year that Neil Kinnock turned on the entryist Trotskyist group, the Militant, the Sticks themselves entered the fray at Labour’s annual conference. Signs appeared on lampposts throughout Bournemouth announcing daily Irish Social Nights and inviting people to come for the “craic” – a new term in Britain then, which caused some consternation.

I attended these for more years than I care to remember. Typically, songs such as “the Patriot Game” would be partnered with socialist songs and support for the striking miners, plus much drinking. This activity did much to convey the complexities of Northern Ireland and undercut the claims of Sinn Fein to an exclusive franchise with the British left.

These WP events weren’t explicitly political but clearly influenced some policy-makers. It helps explain why more on the British left became neutral on the national question, which helped Labour to conclude the Belfast Agreement.

I also worked with WP members and others in a British-Irish and cross-party group called New Consensus. The authors incorrectly allege that New Consensus took British State funding but promptly gave me an unreserved apology.

Yet it is impossible to ignore the dark side of the Sticks. The gulf between public claims and private realities justified the charge of hypocrisy, as former northern leader Seamus Lynch admits here.

In the end, the Sticks had to split. It was increasingly untenable to maintain a Leninist regime, once the communist bloc had imploded, and impossible to maintain electoral credibility with a “little secret army” that everyone knew about.

WP parliamentarians led moves to reconstitute the party without vestiges of Stalinism and republicanism – “the age of heroes is dead and gone,” as party president Proinsias de Rossa put it. These “intelligent revisionists” very narrowly lost and formed the Democratic Left which finally merged with the Irish Labour Party.

The authors note that the Provos now airbrush OIRA out of history and quote an IRA lifer and writer, Anthony McIntyre who concedes that “they beat us to it – and started the peace process first.” The Belfast joke is: what’s the difference between the Provos and the Sticks? Answer: 25 years. For many the Sticks are the Marmite of Irish politics – you either love them or loathe them but their politics made a difference, north and south as well as in Britain.

The book needs more substantial analysis of the intellectual journey from Catholic nationalism to a Marxist two-nations theory. A few key speeches and articles should have been included for the reader to judge the development of political ideas for themselves. The footnotes are confusing and the index isn’t inclusive.

It’s difficult to keep the general reader interested in the rhythms of a politico-military movement – paper sales, robbery proceeds, funeral attendances, casualties, tit-for-tat murders, the characters, splits and intrigues – but this long overdue and enjoyable history of the Sticks does.

The Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party
Brian Hanley and Scott Millar
Penguin £20

  • I see that Gary has failed to note that the reason that De Rossa and his cohort left The WP was not that they were intelligent revisionists, but that they became opportinist careerists who abandoned class politics and fighting sectarianism in the north in the race for a place in government in the south, with them using Leninism and the rest as a smokescreen to hide this retreat from principled socialism.

    He is also absolutely incorrect to say that The WP embraced the two nations theory.

    Gary got an apology for New Consensus being misrepresented in the book. Perhaps he owes us one for the misrepresentations here.

  • Archie P

    The real difference between the Stickies and the Provos is, that the Stickies stopped their violence first…..with those who still wanted to murder [e.g. McGuinness] joining the Provos!!

  • Where’s the sticky Pot gone?

    ‘The real difference between the Stickies and the Provos is, that the Stickies stopped their violence first.’

    Try telling that to the fellah kneecapped by the Sticks in Downpatrick last week.

  • Brit

    As a result of stories my Dad told me as a kid I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Officials, as decent, non-sectarian, lefty republicans.

    I am aware that this is a somewhat rose tinted view of a group who briefly engaged in some nasty acts of violence, but I would be interested to read this text.

    And as for “principled socialism” – that sounds like Tony Benn and the longest suicide note in history.

  • Tim

    They had a long history of printing counterfeit money.

    Didn’t realise they are still shooting people, perhaps General DeChastalin should have aword?

  • Such allegations appear every so often. The last several times, the shootings were subsequently claimed by dissidents.

  • On Brit’s political point. The suicide note was written by those who formed DL. As predicted by The WP at the time, this was a camouflage move by those at the top to disguise their real agenda. Unfortunately the damage done in terms of organisation and morale, added to the crisis of socialism, has meant that efforts to rebuild have proven very difficult.

    The WP is an anti-sectarian party, on the grounds that sectarianism must be actively opposed. Just as Wolfe Tone did when he went to Rathfriland, only to be driven out by an alliance of the sectarian factions.

  • Tim

    ‘Such allegations appear every so often. The last several times, the shootings were subsequently claimed by dissidents. ‘

    Official IRA involvement in the shooting was reported in the Belfast Telegraph.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/gaa-player-shot-in-paramilitarystyle-attack-facing-assault-charge-14490651.html

    As i said, perhaps someone should look at disarming the Officials.

  • “I see that Gary has failed to note that the reason that De Rossa and his cohort left The WP was not that they were intelligent revisionists, but that they became opportinist careerists who abandoned class politics and fighting sectarianism in the north in the race for a place in government in the south, with them using Leninism and the rest as a smokescreen to hide this retreat from principled socialism.”

    trans 1: Yer-but yer-but no-but shut up! Anyway, your mum did it with an Alsatian…

    trans 2: Gary didn’t reach the same conclusion as me.

  • I see you’ve left out the bit about the two nations Paulie, which is the misrepresentation I was talking about primarily.

    Tim,

    And in those other cases the media made similar allegations, and they proved to be false. So I’d take that with an equal grain of salt. Some people with an agenda telling journalists what they want them to hear most likely. And by the way, when Tom French was WP President he was asked if people knew anything about arms should they go to the police. His answer was an unambiguous yes.

    The real significance of the book is that it demonstrates how a disciplined party dedicated to a clear vision of class politics has the ability to gain real improvements for people’s lives, and to influence the direction of politics on this island.

  • Bow Jell

    Garibaldi,
    I notice that the sticky remnants in the Short Strand have just lost their base now that the Melting Pot has been sold on.

    I understand that the local stick activists are now looking to acquire a bus shelter from Translink to hold future meetings of the local activists (inactivists?)-Is that true, Garibaldi?

  • dub

    Garibaldy,

    I understand that the WP did not embrace the BICO 2 nations theory. However could you tall us what exactly they did embrace in relation to the North? And what their position is now?

  • Brasco

    So the stickie apologist and history revisionist gari haven`t got a baldy, tries vainly to spread his lies about the drug dealing OIRA workers party thugs.

    Just a few questions he has continually refused to answer over on Politics i.e.

    1)Are you saying the drug dealing scum of the OIRA/Group B protectors of the Workers Party, don`t exist?

    2)Are you saying the OIRA/Group B doesn`t control and run a number of “social clubs” in West Belfast, where drugs are openly sold?

    3)Are you saying that the OIRA/Group B/Workers Party is fully armed, still involved in all manner of gangsterism, especially the sale of drugs, bank robberies and exhorting local business`s?

    4)Are you still saying that Workers Party members weren`t jailed in London for selling counterfeit $100 notes?
    drugs

  • brasco

    should have read

    “3)Are you saying that the OIRA/Group B/Workers Party is not fully armed, isn`t still involved in all manner of gangsterism, especially the sale of drugs, bank robberies and exhorting local business`s?

  • truth seeker

    Its fun to see Garibaldy get so caught up in his own Workers party propaganda!

    Does he really believe that we are stupid, blind and dump concerning the official IRA.

    They haven`t gone away you know!

  • brasco

    “Some people with an agenda telling journalists what they want them to hear most likely. And by the way, when Tom French was WP President he was asked if people knew anything about arms should they go to the police. His answer was an unambiguous yes.”

    The same year a Workers Party member was caught red handed with guns in Twinbrook!!

    Strange and wasn`t he the one who signed your, sorry John Lowry`s election papers!!!!

    Yeah, its all lies and innuendo and the fault of all those republican descendent’s!!!

  • Brian MacAodh

    They shot down Joe McCann, Joe McCann

  • Padraig

    They had a long history of working with British Intelligence and Loyalists to have fellow Republicans murdered.

    For instance they were permitted by the British to keep their weapons for this purpose, weapons they they still have, by the way.

    One example of their sleeziness was regular meetings with Loyalists in a Drinking Club on the Shankill to finger fellow Nationalists.

    I wonder if this gets an outing in the book?

  • Guest

    Super-dollars.Economic crash.
    oh!If one was a dreamer.

  • Frank

    The officials devised the tax-exemption certificate scam which was a major pay day to the ‘supposedly’ on ceasefire, unarmed & politics only based paramilitaries.

    They also hampered the redevelopment of many working class Belfast areas with their extortion, theft and victimisation of contractors.

    Their working class, socialist politics took a backstage when their was so much money to be stolen and extorted from decent hard working builders.

  • dave

    They morphed into neo-unionists with very little (if any) differences between them and the UUP or the DUP regarding the north. People like De Rossa and other trash like him have spent a career in hating nationalism and promoting unionism and loyalism.

  • Little Timmy O’Toole

    The book deals with many of these aspects of the Official IRA, including their later links with Brit security forces. However it also tells the story of those who fought to defend their areas in August 69 and who battled the Brits on the Falls in July 1970. That is people like Joe McCann, Billy McMillen, Jim Sullivan and Jim Hargey, the Official IRA.

  • Bow Gel

    ‘That is people like Joe McCann, Billy McMillen, Jim Sullivan and Jim Hargey, the Official IRA.’

    There were a few principled people in the Officials who briefly tok the armed struggle to the Brits.

    How the organisation evolved is an insult to their memory-racketeering, tax exemption cerificates, collusion with loyalists,informing to the British. Today’s politically and morally bankrupt remnants of the Sticks are truly the dregs of our society.

  • J Flynn

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when obvious Provo supporters start screaming blue murder about an organization defrauding the British tax system when they can right off as mistakes children being blown to smithereens in their struggle to get Marty into Stormount. Co-operation with the security forces, what about being run internally by the security forces and having innocent volunteers tortured to death by your internal security unit while struggling to get Gerry to Westminster. Laugh or cry take your pick…

  • Joe McCann

    so anyone who attacks the official IRA criminals, is now a provie!!!!!

    By the way the family of Joe McCann stopped the sticks abusing his name by involving him with some form of legacy of the workers party!!!

    The sticks now refer to McCann as a Trotskyist?

  • J Flynn

    Quite fantastic allegations there. Both Joe’s daughters and other family members were at the launch of The Lost Revolution in the company of ORM and WP members. All proud of their father’s ultimate contribution to the republican cause

  • Bow Gel

    What about the extortion rackets, robberies, frauds, shootings, collusion with loyalists carried out by the Sticks, ‘J.Flynn’?

    The nationalist community saw the Sticks for the selfish, criminal leeches that they are which is why they get the same level of votes as turkeys voting for Christmas.

  • $$ean Garland

    Garland was from Keogh Square, one of Dublin’s toughest slums. Still, he did show his balls during Operation Harvest andlater in the attempt to liquidate the fledgling “Trotskyist” IRSP. Cathal Goulding seems to have made babies everywhere he went; a new twist on make love, not war He visited North Korea and the USSR with P de Rossa who, like Gerry Adams, was never in any illegal outfit. De Rossa has a nice number now.

    It is obvious from some posts here that many know of the negfarious deeds of the OIRA.

    OIRA tactics in RTE and elsewhere were very sinister. Giving Ireland turncoats like the curent Labour leadership was not much use to the Irish.

  • As expected, the insane trolls and mad WP haters have descended on this thread. I’ll not bother responding to most of the nonsense here, which is beneath response, though I will say the idea that Joe McCann is dismissed as a Trotskyist or anything else is nonsense. The contribution of all those who gave their lives to build a revolutionary party based on the philosophy of Tone and Connolly and for the socialist republic will never be forgotten.

    To answer Dub’s question, which was a political one. The WP’s aim remains a democratic, secular, socialist unitary state on the island of Ireland – a Republic. The aim is to build it through building the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. The only way this can be down is through the promotion of class politics, north and south. Labour cannot wait.

  • Reader

    J Flynn: …children being blown to smithereens…innocent volunteers…
    ‘Innocent volunteers’ being the ones who blew children to smithereens but didn’t tell the Brits anything about it, I suppose?

  • Bow Gel

    ‘I’ll not bother responding’

    Gaibaldi, Can you at least respond to the fact that this fine, idealistic organisation that you fawn over has seen its electoral support disintegrate in the North to almost zero. I am sure you would say that its all the fault of the electorate and nothing to do with extortion, corruption, shootings and super dollars.

    As for your reference to WP haters, there’s no WP left to hate,deride or even pity anymore.

  • Bow Gel,

    That’s a fair enough political question. There are many reasons. The primary ones being the effects of the DL split on organisation, personnel, finance, capacity and morale, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has had a serious effect on the prospects for socialism.

    The last European election had no left wing candidate. For the first time ever. That is indicative that the difficulties experienced by The WP are part of a broader problem faced by the left in NI. And we should remember that no left party has a TD either, although that is likely to change at the next election in the south.

    As for no WP left to hate. Perhaps you should aim the people frothing at the mouth here at the very mention of the name.

  • Driftwood

    http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/album10.html#78

    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Indeed

    Whatever happened to ‘working class’ politics anyway?

    So it goes….
    submit word here ‘indeed’…quite

  • truth seeker

    so garibaldy the workers party apologist,someone who continually refuses to refute allegations that the OIRA is still active, still has not disarmed and a criminal group that is involved in all manner criminal activity….

    calls all those who raise legitimate questions, trolls and stickie haters!

    So he acts like a petulant revisionist with his head buried in the sand and tries vainly to use smear tactics against all those who don`t believe in his workers party lies and propaganda?

    The OIRA are still shooting and attacking those brave enough to stand up against their drug dealing and extortion. Why is it that this workers party troll attacks PSF and the provies at every turn and puts himself forward as an “expert”?

    Why does he continually try and detract and derail any meaningful attempt here and on other forums to discuss the linkage between the official ira and the workers party? Why does he ALONE state that the drug dealers of the OIRA don`t exist when even the PSNI refute this?

    The Catholic church, community and Nationalist groups know the OIRA exists,that it is a criminal organisation based around Belfast “social” clubs and that they are nothing but thugs.

  • Lizard

    What about the extortion rackets, robberies, frauds, shootings, collusion with loyalists carried out by the Sticks, ‘J.Flynn’?

    I’m guessing you really hated the provos

  • Bow Gel

    Garibaldi,
    When anyone meets a person associated with the WP/Officials, the reaction is not to view that person as a left-wing political idealist. Rather they will know the individual as a pathetic ‘ne’er do well’ involved in criminality on grounds of self-interest alone.Delude yourself otherwise if you wish.

  • Dubboy

    I’ve read most of the book. It seems that the pre-76 republican leadership were not what I would support. It’s clear when Gerry Adams gains control the relations with the sticks changes. I think the leadership have already learned a lot from the sticks and Sinn Fein should do so now, they had clear policies and were not afraid to be clear they were leftwing – it’s just tragic the republican movement split in 1969 and it’s clear Fianna Fail had a lot to do with that.

  • DVD-R

    all left wing groupings large or small have one thing in common that is except the sticks.
    They will argue and debate without resorting to threats from an armed wing.

    Just look at the stickies in Belfast,those of us who live in these areas and know first hand the character of this party would in no way attribute any political acumen or ability to these individuals.

    They are nothing but a group of animals.

  • Frank

    ‘all left wing groupings large or small have one thing in common that is except the sticks.
    They will argue and debate without resorting to threats from an armed wing.’

    The Workers Party 2009 – They certainly still seem to be very militaristic.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/workerspartyireland/3505189796/

  • Driftwood,

    Some of us are still trying to revivify them against the type of economic policies that got us into our current predicament, and that are destroying our public services to make profits for private companies.

    Mostly more of the same otherwise I see.

    As for the photo linked by Frank. The people are wearing lightweight jackets with The Workers’ Party name and logo on them. There is nothing militaristic there, just the traditional flags for that commemoration.

  • Lenins dead

    Can someone please explain to me how anyone can deny the existence of the official ira??
    This garibaldy is he for real? He seems to be the quickiest of the mark when attacking Sinn Fein but never has the ability or willingness to admit the existence of the gun gang the official ira protectors of and probably the same as the workers party?

    I have yet to see the Socialist Party, Communist Party or the SWP proceed down any road wearing militaristic gear or with color parties!

    And Garibaldy, what about the official ira shooting in Downpatrick, your silence is deafening!

  • Senator Eoghan Harris

    Giving Ireland turncoats like the curent Labour leadership was not much use to the Irish.

  • Deaglan Gallant

    The book alleges that members of the Official IRA trained in North Korea in the 1980s. It also claims that Labour MEP P De Rossa visited North Korea in 1986 and East Germany in 1988. There is a details of cooperation with British intelligence on gathering information on republicans and links with criminal gangs in Dublin.

  • J Flynn

    The anti-stick ravers have gone silent – inform thy self.

  • Jamy Hiswallop

    Bit of discussion on priests helping OIRA on indymedia – seems like a good quote from the book here;

    At an Army Council meeting held in Dublin’s Dominican Friary, courtesy of radical priest Fr. Austin Flannery, McMillen asked for permission to kill three soldiers in response. The IRA men sat around a long table in a room dominated by a crucifix and a religious painting. One participant found the scene surreal:
    There we were under a large cross, someone dying on a rock over there, and then any other business, and Billy McMillen . . . says we want permission for an operation, we want to execute three soldiers . . . we had a vote . . . we were like the Last Supper, and the big cross, and we all voting for the death of three fucking men, it couldn’t happen anywhere else except Ireland.

  • Billy Reid

    Was Mick Ryan who was on the Stick’s Army Council a grass?
    Isn’t it odd that the Sticks, to embrace Prods, colaborated with Protestant sectarian killers? Stranger things have happened.

    If the Sticks Army Council met in a monastery, where were the Special Branch who stuck to them like glue?

    As the Provs can attest, being involved in criminal entrprises involves using and abusing people, priests included

  • An Ordinary Republican

    Stop all this nonsence…..

    They were all republicans:CONNOLLY, WOLFE TONE,McMILLEN,ADAMS,SANDS,FARRELL ETC> ETC>

    They all had to make serious decisions in different generations.But 1 thing I know for sure deep down is:

    THEY ALL FOUGHT FOR THE SAME CAUSE .

    IRISH UNITY.

  • Alan Maskey

    Adams did not FIGHT for Irish unity. He is a man of peace, an honourable man who deserves respect. He is the odd one out in your list: all the others died as a result of their beliefs. Adams, like Jesus, lives on.

  • Alan Maskey

    Adams did not FIGHT for Irish unity. He is a man of peace, an honourable man who deserves respect.

    You have got to be joshing! MMcG is climbing toward peace, but Adams is badly damaged and the truth is not out yet!

    I’m surprised you overlook important and unanswered questions.

  • jim

    connolly n tone were 2 orangies.sands n farrell were used by adams.mcmillen was clipped by dr death.irish unity my bxxxxxs

  • jim

    u forgot to mention that great irish patriot EAMON HATCHET KERR

  • Alan Maskey

    Jim: Connolly was not an Orange c-t. He was a trainspottin’, anyone but Hearts die hard ex Brit army Hibs man. It would have been a bad day for him today: Hibs lost (aiain) but at least Hearts only drew. Though he hadn’t been to Mass for years, he took Holy Communion just before he was martyred. One of us.
    You have Adams wrong, He is a peace maker and, as he himself explained, not everyone who deserves it can be given the Nobel Prize. And they can’t give it to Belfast Taigs every year.

    No doubt, the late Gerard Steenson, so unfairly caricatured as a bad boy, would also have won the Nobel Prize had he survived. here is the true story of Mr Steenson:
    http://iplofallen.webs.com/belfastfallen.htm

    He too started out in the Sticks
    I think Shane MacGowan has the best take on them all. Him, The Life of Brian and Puckoon. Such a shower of sky pilots.